Creating a Good Happy Ending
In the last post, I discussed how happy endings have fallen out of favor. But I understand that you still might want write one. So let’s talk about that.
Pitfalls to look for
There are some cues to when you might be heading down the feel-goodism path. Here’s what to look for in your story.
Things come together too easily. Brenda gets into the college of her choice. At the freshman meet and greet, she is introduced to this great guy. She marries him, they live happily ever after. Exactly what want for our own lives; boring fiction. A happy ending isn’t credible unless there are some roadblocks on the way to it.
Characters have to be bent out of shape to make the ending work. To this point in the novel, Jordie has been a lovely guy—considerate, generous, open-hearted (by the by, probably not a very interesting character). Suddenly, he deceives his girlfriend by convincing her that her BFF is coming onto him. I mean, he has to do that as you are planning a great knock-down, drag-out fight between him and the girlfriend. Although I suppose this betrayal immediately makes him more interesting, a happy ending in this case will be unsatisfying to the reader because it sort of comes out of the blue.
Deus ex machina. Or ‘God in the machine.’ Any time you have written yourself into a corner in the plot and you get out of it by introducing a never-before-seen character to save the day, a trapdoor in a bungalow—you get the picture. Major coincidence (protagonist happens to run into the one person who can save him), while not exactly the same, are nevertheless also taboo.
How to create a credible happy ending
So, to sort of turn around the pitfalls above, here are some of questions you need to ask yourself about your piece if you are heading to a happy ending.
How does your protagonist struggle to achieve the happy ending? In the example above, Brenda might like the guy but he’s already going out with someone else. She has to get his attention. The guy’s girlfriend is actually really sweet and Brenda feels guilty about her plan. You see, complications. A happy ending has to be earned.
Does he achieve it through his own efforts? Today, readers might be a little skeptical if, as in It’s a Wonderful Life, a friend in Europe agrees to advance $25,000 to cover the debt the hero owes. Usually, the protagonist needs to achieve the happy ending because of his own strivings. i.e. No deus ex machina.
Are his actions consistent? If you need Jordie to lie to his girlfriend as in the example above, then adjust your portrayal of him so that readers have a few doubts about him. If they get to the lying scene without them, both that scene and the happy ending are going to be incredible (but not in a good way).
Have seeds of happy ending been planted? Don’t have to be and in fact, shouldn’t be obvious. But little throwaway moments that the reader can take in, perhaps without even noticing them, that make a happy ending realistic. Great surprise that Roger isn’t the last one to leave the bar; he is losing weight without working out; he doesn’t fly off the handle as much. Spread over the course of the novel, these casual comments can make the happy ending of Roger going to A.A. believable.
So, you can still do a happy ending—you just need to build up to it.